Read Eye to Eye Online

Authors: Grace Carol

Eye to Eye

eye to eye
Also by
grace carol
and Red Dress Ink

FLYOVER STATES

(where Doris and Ronnie began…)

eye to eye
grace carol

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank the following people for their humor, encouragement and enlightenment: Bob Bledsoe, Alex Cordero, Aelred Dean, Romayne Rubinas Dorsey, Jim Elledge, Elaine McSorley Gerard, Amanda Hong, Brian Ingram, Jane Ingram, Tom Ingram, Jane Hill, Mimi Lind, Lori Lipoma, Kathryn Lye, Neeti Madan, Mike Mattison, Margaret Mitchell, Tania Modleski, Bernadette Murphy, Carol Muske-Dukes, Elaheh Partovi and Zohreh Partovi, Meg Pearson, Michelle Ross, Rosalie Siegel, Maurya Simon, Linda Sims, Bruce Umminger, Judy Umminger, April Umminger and Sabrina Williams.

To students of the ordinary and profound.

ronnie

A few years ago, I did something crazy. Something that no rational, normal person would do. I didn't murder anybody—though there were times I felt like it—but it was drastic behavior nonetheless.

I went to graduate school. In Indiana.

I left a job paying forty thousand dollars a year, a man who loved me, and the City of Angels, for a twelve-thousand-dollar-a-year stipend, a mountain of student loans, men who sorta kinda liked me, in a town of college kids and corn.

That's where I started wanting to murder people.

Then something completely unexpected happened. Grad school ended up being worth going into debt for. I learned a ton of stuff that had nothing to do with making a ton of money (dumb and dumber?) and I met a man. A nice man. Not the man of my dreams, though. Thank God. Since the man of my dreams was actually the man of my delusions. His name was LaVarian Laborteux.

In grad school, LaVarian was the only black Ph.D. around for miles and miles, and I was a single black female in search of my Denzel Washington/Cliff Huxtable. I fell ass-over-commonsense. My true common sense was pointing me to a man named Earl, a big, burly bartender with long, sandy hair and a bushy beard. He says he fell for me the moment I walked into the bar. The first time I saw him, I thought he was a hick, a good old boy on a Harley, and I couldn't for the life of me see how he and I fit together.

I read sociology and literature books for fun. He hadn't read a book for pleasure since he was ten years old. I was constantly politicizing everything and complaining about how everything was politicized. Earl hadn't even known what politicizing meant and then, when I explained it to him, he said, “Oh, well, things ain't got to be as complicated as all that.” He's white, and I'm black. To that Earl says, “Yep. That's a complicated thing sometimes, and sometimes it ain't.” He has a knack for stating the obvious and the true.

Still, I was igoring my common sense and the fact that I had the hots for Earl and that he was smart in ways that were different than me, ways that academia would never appreciate. By then I'd found out LaVarian wasn't exactly available—even though we'd already slept together,
several
times—by reading a footnote in an essay he'd written. A footnote in which he thanked his
wife
for helping him write the essay. Jackass. And then, soon after that, Earl put it all on the line and basically told me he was tired of my nonsense: He was a man and I was a woman, and he was going to take me out. Very macho. And very Italian of Mr. Erardo Lo Vecchio. Earl's real name. I like Italians—it's my tendency toward the macho, and yes, I am a feminist.

After grad school, I did something else crazy. I moved back home to L.A.—with Earl. Without any money. We ended up living in the first shack, I mean, apartment, we could afford. We blew all of our money on first and last months' rent, plus the deposit. We spent our last four thousand dollars to move and get settled and now Earl, big fish out of water that he is, is bartending down the street from where we live, and I am a tutor. A tutor of Satan. I was hired by Ian's family, but he's really the one in charge.

My boss is sixteen years old. Now. I'm not one to complain, but if I may for a moment. It's a hard life and a cruel world when you're a thirty-one-year-old woman and your livelihood depends on whether or not the teenage boy you're tutoring thinks you're a “total bitch” or a “complete idiot.”

I've had the pleasure of hearing my boss mumble both of those sweet nothings while I tried to help him toward his pretty-much-solidified future of privilege. My paycheck isn't in immediate danger, but if Ian stops mumbling or stops talking period, my fat checks—proof that rich people just throw money at problems—will be but a memory. For now, I've got time because I'm still new, Ian's still here and his parents—TV writers and guilty liberals—don't want to fire the black chick right away.

“They think they'd look like racist assholes,” Ian informed me the second time we met and I ripped him a new one for not doing what was the one and only reading I'd assigned him. “
The Bluest Eye
sucks, and you suck, but I'm stuck with you until I fuck up so much they think I'm hopeless. Then, they'll get rid of you with a clear conscience. So,” he'd said, “I see, in your future, you being nice to me.” He tipped back in his chair and pulled at the gelled tips of his spiky black hair.

Good times, I tell you. Good times.

I knew right away I was in trouble from the moment I first laid eyes on the kid, laid eyes on where he lived. My own biases kicked in, I have to admit. I've never met a rich person I liked. I had never truly met a rich person until Ian—but that hasn't stopped me from disliking them. It's not what rich people have, it's what they have and take for granted. Two minutes with Ian and his surly indifference to all the stuff he had, and would likely always have, and I knew I would have to keep
my
bad attitude in check, let alone his. When I was a kid, my mom, dad, brother and I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in what used to be called South Central L.A. that was about the size of Ian's foyer. Now, my family is solidly middle class (though I've slid down the ladder a bit since grad school). We moved to the suburbs after a gang extended a verbal and knife-accessorized invitation to join. So now, years later, my brother and parents' homes are at least twice the size of Ian's foyer.

After I drove up and met Ian, he and I were alone. His parents had trusted my girlfriend Bita's husband when he'd recommended me, and they'd hired me, sight unseen. It was a lucky favor because I'd come back home without a job and needed one right away.

“Hi,” I'd said. “Nice to meet you.” I extended my hand.

“Whatever,” Ian said, and stared at my hand with his arms crossed. Light from the heavy, castlelike front door shone in his face and highlighted the blue tint in his spiky hair.

“Whatever? That's how you talk to people you just met? Jesus.” I made a face at him like I smelled something bad.

He shrugged.

“You're rude,” I said. An asshole was what I was thinking.

“And you're a complete bitch and a total idiot.”

If I had been a cartoon, steam would have sprayed out of my ears and my eyes would have popped out of my head. However, since I wasn't a cartoon, I counted to four so I could regain my composure. I wanted to ask him if he was out of his goddamn mind by speaking to me like that; instead, I decided not to sound like a teacher or a parent. Reverse psychology and all of that. I said, “Dude. Seriously.” The corner of Ian's mouth turned up in what was possibly a grin. “Only spoiled white boys talk to people like that.” His eyes narrowed into slits, and he coolly stared at me with that corner of his mouth still turned up. We stood in the hallway facing each other, invisible holsters strapped around our waists. Finally, Ian snorted.

“I guess we're supposed to work in here or whatever,” he said.

I followed him into a room off the foyer. That day, I spent only an hour with him telling him that we were going to read books and simply discuss them, to sharpen his analytical skills, to enable him to articulate his thoughts. I gave him the Morrison as his first assignment. He grunted and gestured until I was done talking, and then I let myself out.

He was right. At least about the idiot part because I decided I would work with Ian despite his bad attitude. I told myself it was because Earl and I are broke, but I know myself. And if I'm honest, I know that it's about seventy percent because we're broke. I'm also stubborn as hell, and I was not going to get chased away that easily, not by a little punk like Ian. It was war, and I would win. That was the other thirty percent that kept me working with Ian.

That was last week, so here I am again just like Donna Summer said, working hard for the money. Ian and I sit in his backyard, though “yard” is a sadly, inadequate way of putting it. His “yard” is one of those vast museum gardens, like at the Getty. There's a long, rectangular pool and statues all around seem to mock me with demure grins or pitying stares. I imagine them placing bets with each other. “I give her two weeks,” the knock-off
David
says, while Venus gives me a bit more credit. “Ha, David, a month. Easy.”

Ian faces the pool, though it would be natural to face me at the table. We've still got Toni Morrison between us. “Ian,” I say. “Give me a break, here.”

He sips his lemonade.

“Why?” He puts his hands behind his head and stretches.

Because I'll strangle you and have to go to jail?

“This is a complete waste of time. If I'm not feeling it, I'm not feeling it. Everything will work out for me, even if I fuck up in school.”

So
true. The statues stare at us as if they agree with Ian. I'm losing. I sip my lemonade and decide to stop dealing with a kid.

“‘Not feeling it?'” I ask, closing
The Bluest Eye.
I slouch in my chair. “What're you,
down
or something? Chillin' with the homies?”

“You're hardly a homie,” Ian says, looking directly at me, finally.

“What's
that
supposed to mean?”

“It means that I know
way
more about music, about hip-hop, than you do, which is why I don't need any of this shit, which is how I'm going to be successful.”

Dear God. Please, not another blacker-than-thou-white boy. Earlier, just to make conversation, I had asked Ian what was on the iPod that he always seemed to be playing in order to ignore me. He rattled off a list of folks, most of whom I'd never heard of. But so what? Now I'm not black? Prince Ian of Beverly Hills is, because of a playlist? Not a day went by in our apartment growing up that I didn't hear the blues, jazz, R & B. I hadn't even heard of the Beatles until I was thirteen. Weird, not something to be proud of, but still. It's time for someone to get schooled. I stand up, pack up books.

“Okay, Malcolm X. You know hip-hop?”

“Did I stutter?” Ian asks.

“Right. Smart-ass. Who is Gil Scott-Heron?”

Ian shrugs.

“Heard any spirituals or work songs before?”

“Work songs? What are you
talking
about?”

“Ever hear James Brown—”

“No shit—”

“James Brown,
Live and Lowdown at the Apollo, Volume One, 1962?

Silence.

I look at Ian, lounging by his pool, drinking lemonade his housekeeper brought out for us because his rude, lazy ass wouldn't get it for us himself. “You don't know shit about hip-hop,” I tell him. Goodbye job. “See you next week,” I add, for a touch of performative bravado and walk away. But I won't be surprised if I never see the kid again. My boss had gotten hopeless a lot sooner than I thought.

 

It's a nice Friday night in September, so after I flee Beverly Hills's rolling lawns in my used Honda and pace around our apartment, imagining homelessness, imagining how to tell Earl my big mouth may have landed us in the streets, I decide to leave and walk down to the Baseline. This was where Earl bartends. It's only a short ways away from Dodger Stadium. Our grand idea is that Earl will bartend to save money for law school—labor law—and I will keep writing on the side, and tutor full-time. The tutoring was a job opportunity I reluctantly accepted from Charlie, Bita's husband. Beggars with MFAs, which stands for Money: Forget About It, who still have no idea what they're doing with their lives, can't be choosers. At least we've got an apartment. Small, ever-so-slightly rickety, overpriced, but
ours.

I walk slowly to the bar, listening to my flip-flops slap the pavement. I notice that the Echo Park Market has been tagged again: the words FROG TOWN stretch across the awning. Cars pass by blasting Mexican banda music, and the neighborhood terrorists, two brown Chihuahuas, yip and snarl at me as I pass their chain-linked fence. I also notice that the mattress that's been on the sidewalk the last four times I've walked to the bar has been picked up.

When I enter the Baseline, it's quiet, except for the Rolling Stones on the jukebox, singing “Angie.” Seven on a Friday night is still too early for the hipsters. It's a big bar with three rooms, and I linger near the doorway so I can watch Earl without him knowing I'm there. I like to do that sometimes, and I get that fluttery feeling in my stomach, just like when I used to watch him at the Saloon in Indiana. Now that he's all cleaned up, sans long hair and Rumplestiltskin beard, something about the bar's lighting makes him look dramatic, dare I say: like a movie star. Not in a barely-out-of-his-teens sort of way, but in a badass, old-school, one hundred percent man sort of way. Tonight, he seems a different Earl than the one I met in Indiana. He's wearing a tight white T-shirt, and I watch his arm muscles flex as he wipes down the counter and nods when a tall guy appears asking for a drink. Tall Guy's body language tells me he likes what he sees when Earl's large hand nearly wraps around the Campari bottle as he pours. I wait until Earl turns his back to the bar before I park myself on a stool. As I fix my shoe, a blonde waitress who I've never seen comes up and hugs Earl from behind. He smiles, but takes his free hand and peels her arm off him, and then she goes down to the other end of the bar to pour more drinks. Who in the hell is this, feeling up Earl? When he turns around and sees me, his face lights up and the dimples come out in full force.

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